A Thanksgiving Thief

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Ladies' Home Journal Vol. IX No. 12 (November, 1892)

Sophia Hurd stood in her front door, and Mrs. Packer stood on the steps taking leave after a neighborly call. A stiff wind, with a chill of snow in it, blew straight in Sophia's face and ruffled her thin, light crimps. She took off her apron and put it over her head as a hint; but Mrs. Packer was in no hurry to go; the wind was at her back, and she did not feel it so much.

“I heard the Hopkinses was goin' to have Emma's beau to-morrow,” said she.

“Be they?” returned Sophia, indifferently. She looked down with a hard gaze at the old stringy black feather which adorned the top of Mrs. Packer's every-day bonnet.

Mrs. Packer stood so much lower that she had to wrinkle her forehead up to her straight line of gray hair when she looked at Sophia.

“Yes,” said she, “they be. Mrs. Green said they'd got two chickens besides the turkey. She see Henry Hopkins carryin' of 'em home. I 'spose they're goin' to have chicken pie, too.”

Sophia aroused to interest in spite of the icy wind in her face. “Terrible fine, ain't they?” said she, with a scornful lift of her nose. “Well, I guess they ain't got so much more to do with than other folks.”

“I guess they ain't neither. I heard Sam Brightman's folks was pretty bad off. I guess they won't have much Thanksgivin'.”

Sophia jerked furiously when the wind struck her, and put her hand to her crimps, which blew back, and quite bared her high, flat forehead. “I dun know nothin about it,” said she harshly. “I can't keep track of all the poor folks in town, an' I dun know as I'm called on to. There was rich and poor ever sence the world was made, an' I guess there always will be; there ain't no way to help it that I can see, except by shiftin' the money to the other side; like the weights in balances, one side's got to be up an' tother down. I dun know why them that's up have any call to go down, if they can help it. Gen'rally speakin', folks have money because the Lord has given 'em faculty to git it, and keep it. If folks ain't born with faculty I don't see as it's anybody's look-out but the Lord's. Them Brightmans never had any faculty. Mrs. Brightman, she can't cut out a calico dress to save her life, an' Ella she was just like her, an' got married to a man a good deal more so. It was lucky he died, I guess. There's them three white-livered children, an' they don't look as if they had enough faculty to make mud pies, an' teeter, an' as for Sam he ain't never had none. I dun know but he does his work well enough when he can git it, an' he's willin', but he's slow as old Tilly, an' he ain't never had no business faculty. Some men would have got work whether or no. He come to me one day last week an' wanted to cut up my wood, but I told him no, pretty quick. There's old Mr. Thomas will cut it cheaper, besides working faster, I guess. I ain't goin' to have Sam Brightman if I know which side my bread's buttered on.”

“Well, I dun know,” said Mrs. Packer. Her dull, placid face took on a reflective cast; she was thinking what next to say. Sophia pulled her apron closer, and scowled against the wind.

“You said you wern't goin' to have any company Thanksgivin'?” said Mrs. Packer, slowly.

“No, I ain't,” returned Sophia, in a sharp, decisive tone. New topics were scarcely endurable, and recapitulations were maddening in the face of this north wind.

“Well,” said Mrs. Packer, “I'm going to have Cyrus an' the children, an' brother Ezra's folks, as I said before. It makes considerable to do, but —”

“I should most think you'd feel as if you'd got to be home seein' to things,” interrupted Sophia, with a blue glare of her prominent eyes; she was quite out of patience.

Mrs. Packer looked up at her with innocent incredulity; she could not believe that she had heard rightly. “What say?” she faltered.

“I say that I should most think, as long as it was the day before Thanksgivin', an' you'd got all that mess of company comin', that you'd have to go home an' see to things.”

“Fanny is to home,” said Mrs. Packer, feebly. She had not yet fully taken in Sophia's meaning. Her own aggravating points were such purely negative ones that people seldom felt at liberty to retaliate, and when they did she scarcely knew what they meant. However, now a sudden red flashed over her large, dull face.

“Good afternoon, Sophia,” she said with a sudden accession of dignity, and went down the path to the gate with a clumsy sidewise jolt of her whole body.

Sophia shut the front door with a bang, and went into the warm sitting-room. She stood close to the air-tight stove, and spread her long, thin hands over it. “She's gone off mad, an' I don't care if she has,” she said. “If folks don't know enough to go when they start to, it's time they was told. She always makes the heft of her call in the doorway. Standing there in that awful wind! I shouldn't wonder if I'd caught my death.”

There was nobody else in the room, nor even in the house, but Sophia shivered impressively with appealing groans; and finally, when she passed the looking-glass on her way to the kitchen, cast a woe-begone look at herself. “I look dreadful pinched up an' blue,” she muttered.

The kitchen was full of warm savory and spicy odors. A plum pudding and a chicken pie were baking; a row of new pies, and some cake stood cooling under the pantry window. On the kitchen table was a great turkey and another chicken pie, all ready for the oven.

Sophia looked into the stove oven to see how the pudding and pie were progressing. The hot, fragrant steam rushed in her face. She turned the pie around.

The two kitchen windows faced southwest, and the afternoon sunlight, shifting and fluctuating as if itself blown by the wind, came in. A great green parrot in a wire cage hung in one of the windows. He stood on his perch, and watched Sophia with one yellow eye.

Finally, when she arose, he called out in his dissonant voice — the greeting of a merry comrade: “Hullo, Sophi, how's your health? Want a cracker?”

Sophia went into the pantry and paid no attention. She had had the parrot for years; his conversational powers were limited to those three clauses of friendly salutation and inquiry, and one other — “Clear out.”

Presently he shrieked out that also, and then swung wildly back and forth by his strong beak.

Sophia cleared a space on the pantry shelf; then she carried the turkey in with a staggering rush. “I declare, I guess I've lamed my side this time,” she groaned when she had set it down. “I hadn't ought to have lifted it, but I kind o' hated to leave it out on the kitchen table all night. It weighs a good fifteen pound; I wonder what Mrs. Packer would ha' said. She was dyin' to get out here. I guess she heard I bought a big one, an' mebbe old Mr. Thomas told how I got him to kill them two chickens. Well, it ain't nobody's business; if I ain't got folks to come to Thanksgivin', I guess I can have as good a dinner as them that has.”

“Hullo, Sophi,” screeched the parrot, which had been listening on calmly.

“As long as I ain't got a cat or a dog, it's lucky that I've got a parrot that can pick the bones, instead of a canary bird,” said Sophia. “It's goin' to be considerable for me to eat up all that great turkey, an' them two chicken pies.”

She mixed up another cake. When the pudding and chicken pie were done, she filled up the oven again. It was eight o'clock that evening when her Thanksgiving cooking was all finished, the dishes washed, and the kitchen put in order. Then she went to bed. She was a lonely woman; her own kindred were all dead and gone years ago; she had no husband nor children, and nobody to come home to Thanksgiving. But nobody in the village had a better filled larder than she. She was one of those who find a certain joy independent of all associations in possessions; no loneliness could keep her to-night from complacent reflections upon those loaded pantry shelves. There was more than she needed, but she had it. And after all it was not merely a question of material need and supply, but of all the natural craving of a lonely and self-centred soul; it would necessarily take much of this grosser food to satisfy that, but satisfy that it did to a certain extent, and always had. After Sophia's mother died, and left her solitary in the house and in the world, the beautiful black cashmere dress, which she bought and wore to church the Sunday after, and also the fine black straw bonnet, with its tuft of black satin roses, had brought her a certain solace. Sophia's mother had been niggardly even with herself. When Sophia held the purse she was not niggardly with herself; the neighbors said she was extravagant. They watched some rolls of tapestry carpet, a new stove, a new lamp, a new chamber set and spring bed go into the house with wonder and doubtful approbation. “Well, I hope the money'll hold out,” they said.

But Sophia was shrewd enough; she knew that the money would hold out, and there was no risk in her feathering her nest prettily, although there were no opening mouths in it, if she enjoyed it. And enjoy it she did. She rocked easily in her new stuffed chair, over her new carpet, and she slept comfortably on her new spring bed, with the carved headboard of the new bedstead overshadowing her. She thought honestly, in her inmost soul, that she was happier than many women she knew who had large families, and little money, and were worried and overworked. Sitting early in church on a Sunday, with her nice black skirt falling daintily over her knees, her cashmere shawl arranged in studied folds around her unbending shoulders, her thin light hair in two carefully crimped scallops over her temples, and her bonnet strings tied in an unhurried bow, she watched the women who had risen early, gotten breakfast for a large family, put the house in order, washed and dressed the children, and laid out the husband's clean clothes for him, toil anxiously up the aisle, and felt a peace in which she realized no savor of regret. Sophia Hurd had never had a love affair in her whole life; when she was a girl the young men were all afraid of her.

She had always had a ready incisiveness of manner, and never any prettiness to soften it. She had always been daintily appointed; there had never been an untidy lock, nor a gaping seam but that had served only to intensify apparently the severity.

When she had been a young girl, very young, still going to the academy, with her hair crossed in two tidy braids at the back of her head, her prim calico dress rustling stiffly at her heels, and youth giving its one fleeting charm to her clean, sharp blonde face, this very Sam Brightman, whom she and Mrs. Packer had discussed, had gone home with her once from the singing school, had kissed her at the gate, and she had viciously slapped his face in return. That one kiss of boyish admiration had been her last, and, it was strange, but she had never forgotten it. She thought of it when poor Sam Brightman, bent and haggard with his long toil in his fruitless vineyard of life, had stood by her woodpile asking leave to cut it and so earn a few cents for himself and his half-starved dependents. All the boyish spirit and prettiness had gone out of him, and he had been a brave, pretty boy. Sophia, elderly and enveloped in a hard and regretless maidenhood, had stood in the doorway holding a shawl well over her face that she might not catch cold, trying to drive a sharp bargain, and yet had thought of that old childish kiss. She was conscious of no sentiment regarding it; it was simply as the one rhyme in the prose of her life, and kept singing itself in her ears, foolish as it was. That night before Thanksgiving, when she lay drowsily in her chamber, she thought of it again; and a vague and half-reluctant fancy came into her mind of what her life might have been had she not repulsed that first kiss.

“There'd been turkey 'nough to go 'round, and pies, anyhow,” she said to herself. “I 'spose he'd have lifted the turkey in an' out of the oven, an' he'd spilt the gravy, likely as not; men folks are dreadful unhandy. I guess he'd been pretty well off though, to what he is now.” Sophia pressed her lips contemptuously in the dark, as she thought of Sam Brightman's gentle, passive wife. It was a dark night, the wind still blew, the sky was overcast, and the moon would not rise till midnight.

Sophia fell asleep and slept so soundly that when she awoke with a great start she thought she had not slept at all. But the moon was an hour high, the clouds had cleared before it, and it was so light that she could see everything quite plainly.

She sat up in bed and listened; she had a confused idea that she had heard a window opened somewhere in the house. Presently there came a sharp clatter from below; it sounded as if somebody had let a dish fall. Sophia got out of bed, slipped on her shoes and stockings, put on her dress skirt and a shawl, then she went out boldly to the head of the back stairs, which were nearly opposite her door.

She listened; there was certainly some one moving about below. She clutched the stair-post. “Who's there?” she called out in a bold voice.

There was no reply; the noise ceased.

“Who's movin' 'round down stairs?” she called out again; and the silence continued.

“There's somebody down there,” said Sophia, and her voice sounded still firmer and bolder. “I heard you, and I'm going to find out who you are. You can't git out of that winder again, nor out no door without my hearin' o' you, and then I shall look out an' see who you are. It's bright moonlight; you'd ought to have thought of that, whoever you are, before you come thievin'. You've got yourself into a pretty scrape, I guess you'll find out. Now, I'm goin' to set right here an' hark; you can't stir without my hearin' o' you, and you needn't think you can.”

Sophia sat down on the top stair and waited and listened. There was no sound from below. Suddenly the parrot fluttered and screeched his whole vocabulary in an agitated medley; “Hullo, Sophi! Clear out. Want a cracker? How's your health?” Sophia knew that the unknown person below had moved.

“You're movin',” she called out, when the parrot's clamor had lulled a little. “I heard you; you needn't think you can cheat me.”

There was silence again. Sophia listened. She sat there until the clock struck two, and heard nothing more. She was trying to persuade herself that she had imagined the terrifying sounds, and might safely return to bed, when there came a sudden choking cough from below.

She arose and leaned far over the stair-rail. “Sam Brightman,” she called, “you're down there; you can't cheat me. I know your cough. Now you jest tell me what you're prowlin' 'round' my house in the middle of the night for. I should call it pretty work.”

There was no answer. “Sam Brightman,” she said again, and her tone was quite fierce; “you speak this minute. What are you doin' down there? You can't cheat me; I've heard you cough in meetin' for ten years. It's you, Sam Brightman, you that's a church-member, with a wife that's a church-member, prowlin' round women's houses in the middle of the night. I 'spose you think mebbe you've got a faculty for stealin' if you ain't got none for work. What you after down there? You speak, or I shall get dressed and come down.”

There was silence still.

“You Sam Brightman,” said Sophia, “jest as sure as you don't speak, and tell me what you're after, I'll have the sheriff come in the mornin' an' take you to the lock-up. Now, what are you after?”

There was another cough, and it sounded unexpectedly from just below her. “I'm after something to eat for my wife and daughter, and grandchildren,” answered a man's voice with a gruff defiance in it.

“Somethin' to eat? I should think you'd took a pretty way to get it. Ain't you ashamed o' yourself. Why don't you go to work?”

“Mebbe you can tell,” replied the voice from below.

“Well,” said Sophia, and her tone was a little subdued. “If you're so bad off as all that, why didn't you come an' ask for victuals.”

“Because I'd ruther steal than beg; when I've worked jest as hard as I knew how all my life, it makes me feel more like a man,” replied Sam Brightman fiercely. “I ain't no call to beg. If I can't have my share, an' them that belong to me can't have their share of the things in this world by any fair means, if folks won't let us, I mean to have 'em whether or no. I've made up my mind. I heard how you'd got a big turkey an' chicken pies for nobody but yourself to eat, an' we ain't got a mouthful in the house, an' you wouldn't give me no work. I made up my mind I'd steal a little Thanksgivin', seein' as the Lord hadn't give me none. Now you can do jest what you've a mind to with me. Get me sent to jail; it won't make no difference to 'em. I ain't doin' anything for 'em, an' I'll get fed. They take some pains to keep thieves alive after they've caught 'em. Mebbe I'd better set 'em all to stealin'. Government has some look-out for wicked folks if it don't for good ones. You can do jest what you've a mind to. I'm past carin'.”

“You can have one of 'em chicken pies, if you are in such dreadful straits as all that comes to,” said Sophia in a sarcastic voice. “I should think you talked real pretty for a church-member, Sam Brightman. Take one of 'em pies, an' go home, an' mind you shut the pantry door.”

“I don't want your pie,” said Sam Brightman, and he coughed again.

“Well, you can go without it then, if you don't want it after all this rumpus,” returned Sophia. “There's one thing I want to know — What was it you tipped over and broke in the pantry?”

“I guess 'twas a dish,” replied Sam Brightman, feebly.

“A dish, what kind of a dish?”

“I dunno.”

“I 'spose it was one of 'em nice covered ones. Now, I think you'd better go home. You can take that chicken pie or leave it, jest as you've a mind to. If your folks are starvin' the way you say they are, I guess you'll be glad 'nough to take it; an' if you try any such work again, you won't get off so easy.” Sophia listened for a reply or Sam Brightman's retreating footsteps, but there was dead silence from below.

“Sam Brightman,” said Sophia, “you speak.” She trembled; a vague alarm was stealing over her. “Sam Brightman,” she called again imperatively; but there was no response. Sophia backed into her room, keeping her eyes toward the stairs. She shut the door, and put a chair against it — there was no lock; then she lighted a lamp, and dressed herself. She even smoothed her hair, and looked scrutinizingly in the glass. “I look awful pale,” she muttered.

Then she took the lamp and opened the door cautiously. Everything was still. Sophia stole softly to the head of the stairs, held up the lamp before her, and peered down. There indeed lay Sam Brightman, poor, old free-lance in the poverty and labor question, huddled in a forlorn heap at the foot of the stairs.

“Land sakes,” gasped Sophia, “he's in a fit.”

She went down, her knees shook under her; she set the lamp on the stairs, bent over Sam Brightman, and touched his shoulders gingerly. “Sam,” she called loudly at him, “Sam, what's the matter?”

Sam's face upturned insensibly to the lamp-light, was ghastly. Sophia trembled violently. “Sam,” she called imperatively with her shaking voice. “Sam, be you dead? Sam Brightman, for the land sakes, do speak to me.”

Sam did not stir. Sophia stepped over him, and ran into the sitting-room for the camphor bottle. She poured some over his forehead, and held her handkerchief wet with it to his nose. “Smell of it,” she panted. “Sam, smell of it. Be you dead, Sam, be you dead? Land sakes, what shall I do.”

Sam gasped faintly and tried to rise. She pushed him back. “Lay still,” said she agitatedly, “lay still, you've had a bad spell, but you're comin' to. Lay still, smell of this camphire.”

“Where be I?” moaned Sam Brightman, looking with piteous bewildered eyes on hers.

“Right here in my house — Sophia's. Don't you know? Don't you remember? You've known me ever since we were children. You're right here, don't you worry.”

Sam Brightman was, for the time, past worrying. He shut his eyes, and lay with his mouth open, panting feebly. “Sam Brightman, look here,” said Sophia, suddenly.

He opened his eyes wearily.

“How long is it since you had anythin' to eat?”

Sam did not reply; his pale face took on an obstinate look.

“I believe you're starvin',” said Sophia sharply. “I never heard of such doin's. A pretty piece of work I should call it. Don't you know no better than to do this way? Now you lay still; don't you try to get up.”

Sophia went hurriedly into her parlor bedroom, and got some pillows and comfortables; then she arranged Sam Brightman as easily as she could at the foot of the stairs. She kept enjoining him not to move lest he should faint again; and he showed little disposition to. His last stress of mind had quite exhausted him for the time; nobody would ever know how little he had eaten, and how much he had worried for the last few months.

Sophia Hurd was methodical in all her ways; at night she always left her kitchen fire ready to light in the morning. Now all she had to do was to touch a match to it, and set on a little kettle of broth left over from her chicken pies. When it was hot, she emptied it into a bowl, and carried it, with a spoon, to poor Sam Brightman.

“Now you jest set up, an' drink this,” said she; and she might have been Sam's mother from her tone.

Sam made an effort to sit up, but sank back again. “Can't you set up?” said she. “You try, you've got to drink this, or you can't get home. I never see such work.”

Sam made another effort and fell back.

“For the land sakes,” said Sophia, and her voice had an odd quizzical tenderness. “Well, open your mouth.”

She extended a spoonful of the hot broth, the fragrant steam of it came in Sam's face; he shut his lips tight.

“You open your mouth, this minute,” said Sophia, and he opened it.

Sophia fed the whole bowl of broth, spoonful by spoonful, to Sam Brightman, and, as she did so, an expression came into her sharp, homely face which had never been there before, which her friends would not have recognized as hers, nor she, had she seen herself in the glass. It was the look of a mother feeding a child, and with it a curious averted effect, as if she were turning shamefacedly from her own eyes. When the bowl was drained she got up from her knees, and carried it into the kitchen hurriedly.

“There, I guess you'll feel better now,” said she with a half laugh. “You lay still a few minutes longer, an' I guess you can get up.”

She got a basket down from the top shelf in the pantry, and packed it with food. She set in one of the chicken pies at the bottom. Presently she heard Sam staggering into the room. “Here's a basket for you to take home,” said she. “I never heard of such work.” She did not turn her head. Sam made no reply. He went straight toward the door, unbolted and opened it, and the night air rushed in.

“Ain't you goin' to take this basket?” asked Sophia.

Sam made no reply; he stepped out weakly. Sophia followed after him with the basket. “If you ain't equal to carryin' o' it, I'll go with you,” said she. “I shan't be afraid to come home; it's as light as day, and the neighbors are all abed, so there won't nobody see us.”

“I don't want your basket,” said Sam, with feeble gruffness, pushing it back as she approached him.

“Well, I should call it pretty work. Why don't you want it? Had you ruther have stole it?”

“Yes, I had,” said Sam, fiercely. He went feebly down the walk, and she stood looking after him. “Hullo, Sophi,” the parrot sung out with a wild flutter, when she went in. She unpacked the basket, and set the food carefully away. Then she locked the door, put a stick in the window whereby Sam Brightman had entered, and went to bed again.

She could not sleep any, and heard the town clock when it struck the hours, until morning. She got up at the first light and dressed herself again. When she brushed her hair before the glass, she ran out her tongue and looked at it anxiously. “It looks feverish,” said she.

She made herself a bowlful of sage tea for her breakfast; it was her panacea; she had been brought up to consider it a salutary and comforting draught; and this morning she really felt ill, she thought. So seldom had her determined calm been infringed upon, that its disturbance impressed her like a real bodily ailment.

After she had finished the sage tea, she heated the oven and put in the turkey to roast, then cleaned the vegetables for dinner. At eleven o'clock the rich odor of the roasting turkey permeated the whole house; the vegetables were steaming. She sat down by the kitchen window and reflected.

The bells were ringing for meeting; everybody in the village was going, except the housewives who needed to stay at home to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner. It was a pleasant morning; the wind had gone down, and there was a heavy white frost; the yard and the fields were covered with it, the dry grass bent stiffly, and the rocks showed shining silver-white surfaces.

“If I sent anythin' over there to eat,” said Sophia, “I dunno what Sam would say. I don't darse to.”

There was no sound but the hissing and bubbling of the boiling vegetables. The parrot's eye, set like a yellow pearl in his splendid mass of green feathers, watched her keenly.

“I dunno, if I put on my other dress an' my best bonnit, an' went over an' asked 'em all to dinner, as they'd resent it,” said Sophia; “an' I could get Sam to one side an' tell him to keep dark about last night, an' that I'd be glad to let him have the wood in my woodland to cut; it'll last him all winter.”

The bell had long stopped ringing, there was a hum of Thanksgiving in the church, and all the village dinners were fast cooking, then Mrs. Packer saw Sophia Hurd arrayed in her best dress, and coat and bonnet, going down the street.

“I'd like to know where she's goin',” she said. “It's too late for meetin' an' I don't b'lieve she's invited anywheres to dinner.”

Mrs. Packer henceforth cooked her dinner with one eye on the window. First she saw Sophia return hurriedly; then, when it was almost time for meeting to be out, Sam Brightman and his wife, his daughter, and the three little white-headed children, all keeping step as if to some gladness in their hearts, like a little gala procession, and they all went in Sophia Hurd's front gate.

changed [ “Good afternoon, Sophia,” the said ] to [ she said ]
changed [ if I aint got folks to come to Thanksgivin' ] to [ ain't ]
changed [ Land sakes, what shall I do,” ] to [ what shall I do.” ]
changed [ “Can't you set up?” said she. You ] to [ said she. “You ]
changed [ dinners were fast cooking, hen Mrs. ] to [ cooking, then ]